Damn the federal torpedoes, full speed ahead

June 2, 2017

The unfortunate decision by the Trump administration to withdraw from the Paris Agreement—along with several other recent actions, including submission of a budget to Congress with drastic reductions in all non-defense scientific research and development in the United States, in particular related to energy and the environment, and withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement—sent a strong political message to the world: The US federal government no longer intends to assume a leadership role in advanced technology associated with the environment, in spite of the long-term economic consequences of that decision.

But politics and reality are not always closely correlated, particularly in the current world, and particularly with this administration. The actual ecological consequences for the world of the Trump administration decision may be less severe than the political consequences, in the United States and elsewhere. After all, the Paris Agreement has no real teeth, and the Trump administration could have sabotaged the intent of the climate change accord while remaining within it.

I expect local and state authorities to do what common sense dictates, which is to promote new technologies, move toward renewable energy sources, and rely less on fossil fuels. Coal is dying in this country regardless of Trump’s rhetoric, and US businesses need to focus on reality if they are to succeed. Pretty well all the major players in the energy sector and the high technology sector—with the exception of some particularly entrenched fossil fuel interests like the Koch brothers’ businesses—already have seen where the future lies and will work hard to keep up with their competitors around the world. That Elon Musk saw fit to finally withdraw from the presidential advisory committees on technology—which all along seemed to me like window dressing intended to provide the president an appearance of gravitas—immediately after Trump’s announcement means the cognitive dissonance between the White House and the high-technology leadership has risen above the political noise.

Now, local governments and large corporations need to speak out openly and make plans to work together to counter the reactionary federal administration. This is already happening. Today, 30 US cities, three states, 80 university presidents, and more than 100 companies announced that they will submit plans to the UN, committing to the Paris accord. There is little doubt that reduced federal support will hurt this effort somewhat, but if the Trump administration’s decision induces a new public-private partnership to work around the federal government, it could actually spur new activity among these and other groups.

What concerns me more generally is the issue I mentioned at the beginning of this piece: The withdrawal from the Paris Agreement appears to be part of a concerted effort on the part of the Trump administration to move the United States out of a leadership role in technological and economic activity. By arguing that the federal government will not promote the new energy technologies that will be a huge economic engine in this century, Trump is essentially accelerating what seemed an inevitable trend, in which China and Europe would become the world’s economic and technological leaders, with the United States moving toward the back of the pack. This trend may leave the United States with one major export: arms. 

The withdrawal from the Paris Agreement may also have an indirect effect on research in other areas at the forefront of science, from information technology to biological science and beyond. The United States has been a leader in these areas in part because the best students from around the world come to study here; some go on to pursue research at the forefront in these fields. If technological leadership in general moves abroad, the United States will attract fewer and fewer of the best students, negatively affecting the country in the long term.

To limit the economic fallout created by an administration that appears to look backward rather than forward, US universities, local governments, and corporations need to work together to ensure that the environment for both fundamental and applied research and development in energy, environmental science, and other high-tech areas remains robust. To counter a concerted effort by the Trump administration to make America not-so-great, the best recourse by the rest of us seems to be: Damn the federal torpedoes, full speed ahead.